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Testament of Youth 

Wednesday, Jun 10 2015
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Vera Brittain's memoir was a bestseller immediately upon publication in 1933, and it has been a seam in the fabric of British cultural history ever since. Naturally, it became a BBC TV show (in 1979), and this new film version, directed by James Kent from Juliette Towhidi's script, is elegant and absorbing, with the quiet command that's sort of standard-issue British miniseries stuff. Less standard, but crucial, is the film's central perspective: It's a war story as told by a woman, who's a pacifist. Played by Alicia Vikander, this Vera Brittain hardly set out to eulogize the lost generation of the First World War. It was a battle enough just persuading her parents (Dominic West, Emily Watson) to let her go to Oxford — from which the war drew her away to serve as a nurse. We see the several important young men in her life, including a brother (Taron Egerton), and a fiancé (Kit Harington), and feel a sense of doom when they enlist. We see that Vera was a cosmopolitan woman, whose fluency in German altered the course of her life more than once. As this is a film about a witness bearer, it does well to capitalize on Vikander's perpetually observant eyes, which convey tenderness, intelligence, shock, incomprehension, comprehension, resiliency, and finally wisdom. She holds the camera's attention by focusing her own, and she becomes the story by getting out of its way. There is a real clarity of purpose in this Testament of Youth and a mournful dignity in how the film rests its pacifist case: The supporting cast includes legions of horrifically maimed soldiers, portrayed by veterans of the war in Afghanistan.

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Jonathan Kiefer

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SF Weekly movie critic Jonathan Kiefer is on Twitter: @kieferama and of course @sfweeklyfilm.

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